Mysteries of Jack London

The allure of Jack London lies not only with his rakish persona and literary accomplishments, but also the mysteries he left behind.

Why did his magnificent four-level,15,000-square-foot dream house burn right before London and his wife, Charmian, were scheduled to move in? Was it accident or arson?

“As far as the house burning down, Jack and Charmian at various times were convinced it was arson,” said London biographer Jay Williams. “That’s a perfectly natural reaction to a calamity of untold proportions.”

And London, who sparred with neighbors – specifically, he fought Joshua Chauvet in court over water rights – had his enemies, various of whom have come under suspicion over the years.

A team of 10 fire forensics experts combed over the Wolf House ruins for four days in 1995 to settle the debate once and for all. Examining burn patterns and reviewing design and construction documents, witness statements and historical records, plus digital recreation of the house, they concluded that the fire was probably caused by linseed oil-soaked rags left by wood finishers who were known to have worked in the structure that day. They said arson couldn’t be completely ruled out, but it was unlikely.

Sonoman Jonah Raskin, author of “The Radical Jack London” and several long essays on the writer, including an in-depth look at the fire that destroyed London’s mansion, has a theory.

Raskin said his No. 1 suspect is “Jack London’s double,” a man who had been impersonating London, using his name to sign checks and get women to go out with him, pretending to be the reporter. The identity thief was doing everything possible to make London’s life miserable, and burning his new house would be part of a pattern, according to Raskin.

Did London, who reportedly suffered from depression, chronic pain and a slew of other health problems, die of natural causes, or did he commit suicide? Or could he have been done in by an accidental overdose of morphine?

London’s death has also prompted continuing speculation, including intimations stirred by early biographer Irving Stone, that he took a deliberate overdose of morphine. Biographer Earle Labor, one of the world’s leading Jack London scholars, has suggested that London may have suffered from bipolar disorder, a chronic depression he called “the long sickness,” before his move to the Valley of the Moon in 1905. Charmian also wrote of London’s mood swings.

But Labor believes London died of natural causes. The official report was renal failure. A consensus of medical and pharmaceutical experts who examined his symptoms concluded he likely died of heart or kidney disease that resulted in a stroke or heart attack. London had used an ointment containing mercury to treat a tropical disease he picked up in the South Seas, which could lead to kidney failure.

London didn’t behave like a man planning his own death. In fact, he had plans to see his daughters within a few days.

Biographer Williams thinks London may have died of an accidental overdose of morphine, which he had been taking for severe pain. Raskin believes any number of things could have contributed to his death.

“It does seem that Jack London was not interested in living a long life,” Raskin said. “Anybody who lived in the way he lived was not aiming to grow old gracefully.”

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